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Work to begin on 12,800-square-foot community center for Lacoochee

The new community center that will be the centerpiece of Lacoochee could be under construction by early next year and open next fall.

On Tuesday, county commissioners are slated to approve $300,000 in federal block grant money for the project. That will be combined with $550,000 in private donations and $1 million in state money for the 12,800-square-foot building in Pasco's poorest community.

"As soon as they approve those agreements, we hope to go out for bid," said Ronnie Deese, a Withlacoochee River Electric Cooperative executive who is also head of a nonprofit created to oversee the community center.

The building would be owned and operated by the nonprofit group. It would also hold a long-term lease on 2.4 acres just north of the football field in county-owned Stanley Park. The lease agreement, which is also set for approval during Tuesday's commission meeting, allows the group to use the property for an annual sum of $1 for 50 years. There is an automatic renewal for another 50 years.

Deese said preliminary site plans were donated by Spring Engineering. The firm that wins the construction bid will complete the final design work as part of a design-build process.

He expects construction to take about eight months, meaning the community center could be open by late summer or early fall.

The state money was secured by incoming House Speaker Will Weatherford after heavy lobbying from supporters of the Lacoochee redevelopment effort.

"I don't know if there's anything that's needed any more than to help those people up there," Withlacoochee utility general manager Billy E. Brown said in March, in an effort to persuade Gov. Rick Scott to approve the money. He did.

Once a thriving community on a major railroad line in northeast Pasco, Lacoochee never really recovered after the Cummer Cypress Co. sawmill closed in 1959. Now, convenience stores count as a major industry and visiting officials gasp at the poor housing conditions.

The community gained prominence after the 2003 shooting death of sheriff's Lt. Charles "Bo" Harrison, killed while on patrol near a nightclub. Efforts to improve Lacoochee have only gained traction in recent years.

In a memo to commissioners, Community Development manager George Romagnoli said the community center would offer a "reinvigorated sense of community pride" while also providing space for key social services.

The building's primary tenant will be the Lewis Abraham Boys & Girls Club. The larger space would replace an aging building in a nearby public housing complex and would allow the group to serve 100 children instead of 70.

Kids would have an indoor basketball court and easy access to outside courts. There would also be a concession stand for Police Athletic League youth football games.

The building will also have space for a range of services, including the WIC program, job training and basic health care. There will be a kitchen and attached dining area that could serve as a site for the county's elderly nutrition program. Also included is a retractable stage for school plays and space for community and church meetings.

The agreements with county officials also state that the nonprofit will continue to raise money for a permanent endowment to pay for operating costs.

Lee Logan can be reached at llogan@tampabay.com or (727) 869-6236.

Work to begin on 12,800-square-foot community center for Lacoochee 10/19/12 [Last modified: Friday, October 19, 2012 8:17pm]
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